Should Church and State be Separated?

by Norman de Jong, Ph.D.

The subject of church-state relationships has once again become a live issue. Although discussions about Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading from public schools are not the regular fare for dinner table conversation or dormitory discussion, the supposed separation of church and state is worthy of analysis.

Since January, 1982, the “separation” issue has again come to public attention as a result of a federal judge’s ruling in the case designated as McLean vs. the Arkansas Board of Education. After a nationally publicized trial, the court decided that Act 590, which required public school teachers to give “balanced treatment” to both creation and evolution, was unconstitutional. The law was ruled unconstitutional, Judge Overton declared, because it violated “the separation of church and state.”

In late 20th century America, the vast majority of persons have come to assume that church and state should be separated. Ever since 1947, when Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion for the Everson case, the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” has become progressively ingrained into the fabric of American jurisprudence.

During the 1960s that notion successively convinced a majority of the Supreme Court to outlaw prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, as well as the posting of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls. Since those early decisions in the Engel and Abingdon cases, the courts of the United States have become extremely skittish about any kind of government which permits or even vaguely promotes religious activity.

In Kent vs. Commissioner of Education, the Massachusetts Court in 1980 ruled that prayers offered in the public schools, in which God was petitioned for the release of the hostages in Iran, were unconstitutional. Even though the court sympathized with the content of the prayers under attack, the judges ruled that these prayers failed their test of secular purpose because they were an appeal to the Deity.

Another case, known as Widmar vs. Vincent, has given a somewhat different twist to this whole church-state controversy. At issue were the regulations of the University of Missouri at Kansas City which prohibited religious worship or teaching in any of its buildings or on its grounds. To the delight of many Christian campus groups, the Supreme Court ruled against the University, rejecting their argument that the state had a “compelling interest in maintaining strict separation” from the church.
In some cities, even your home is not a safe place for prayer and Bible study groups.

  • In 1980, Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles stated that, “a Bible study would not be a permissible use in a single family residential area – since this would be considered a church activity.
  • In a town near Boston, the building commissioner notified a clergyman that inviting more than four people to his home for a Bible study was violation of the “Home Occupation” ordinance.
  • In Atlanta, a zoning official stated that any kind of regular home Bible study which includes non-residents is illegal without use off a special permit.
  • In Maryland, two residents were issued a citation for using their home for worship services without a use and occupancy permit.

If the the present trend continues, as it very well might, it is conceivable that by the end of this century the only place where it will be legal for people to pray and read the Bible will be in our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning.

The Separation Myth

The vast majority of Americans have been taught to believe that church and state ought to be separated, within the last three decades, largely through the very courts which were designed to protect our liberties. We have allowed the Supreme Court to become our national educator without serious challenge.

We perpetuate this assumption peculiar to the United States because we fail to know our nation’s history and we no longer ascribe to our words the clear meanings historically given them. If we no longer study history, we are as guilty as those men and women who sit on the bench and interpret the laws for us perpetuating the myths where intelligence and common sense ought to prevail.

According to the contemporary American myth, the relationship between church and state would look as follows:

When confronting such an image, we should ask for a definition of terms: “What do you mean by the church? What do you mean by the state?”

According to the dictionary, the word “church” means: “The collective body of Christians; any body of worshippers; the building in which worshippers gather.” All creeds and all confessions describe the “church” as the body of Christ, those people who are chosen of God, or the Bride of the Savior. The “church” always refers to people. Pastors, elders, deacons, musicians, ushers, and all church members help to make up the church. The church is a body composed of people.

The “state”, according to the dictionary, is a “political body; any body of people occupying a common territory. Books on political science support the idea that the state is identified as people who live in a specified territory and who are responsible to the same laws and government. The state is made up of people, just as people make up the church.

The church is not an institution consisting of archaic doctrines, stain glass windows and lifeless religious relics. The state is not a disembodied monster residing beneath a silver dome or crimped into a manila folder in some bureaucratic jungle. No, the church and the state, as Webster so clearly points out, is a collection of persons.

In reality the church cannot be separated from the state. This presumed wall of separation between church and state is a figment of someone’s imagination, a thought which remains a thought and cannot become an actuality. The two are related but not synonymous. People are a significant part of both.

In the above illustration, the church is within the state – a part of it, but not equal to it. The state includes all those who live in it, both those who are members of the church and those who are not. The church is within the state, but not identical to it. When considering this separation issue, we should also ask the question: “What about that wall of separation? Does such language appear in our Constitution or in any of our laws?”

Without going into an exhaustive historical analysis, let me also assert that it was not the founding father’s intention to attempt the impossible separation between church and state. The first amendment simply and clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It should be noted clearly that Congress was thereby prevented from designating an established church; for that was to remain the prerogative of the separate states. In Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut, the established state church was the Congregational. In Virginia, it was the Episcopal. In a number of others it was more broadly specified to be the Protestant Christian Religion, with almost all the states specifying in their constitutions the religious requirements for holding office. In the Delaware state constitution, for example, it was stipulated that any person who aspired to state office would have to make the following oath:

“I, _____________ , do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”

In such a religious environment, Congress saw no difficulty in appropriating tax monies for the training of ministers, paying the salaries of missionaries to the Indians, or the publication of the first American Bibles. In the summer of 1787, during the very same time that the Constitution was being drafted, Congress set aside section 16 in every township for the support of avowedly Christian public schools. In addition, Congress also stipulated that section 29 in every township be set aside for the support of religion. Congressional leaders saw themselves not as secular politicians, but as moral and spiritual guides to the new nation.

When, then, was the “wall of separation” erected?

The “wall of separation” was not firmly put in place until 1947. In that year, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, instead of going back to the Constitution, dug out a phrase from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1802. For Jefferson it was a campaign promise to a selected group of political supporters. For us it has become an intellectual nightmare and a seemingly immovable plank in American jurisprudence.

For those Christians who teach in public schools of our land, the Supreme Court has effectively accomplished what Congress is expressly prohibited from doing. From 9 AM to 3 PM, Monday through Friday, we are told to ignore and deny the God who made us. In our classrooms and on the school grounds we may not talk to Him and we may not read His only infallible guide for life and behavior.

The American Civil Liberties Union is pleased.

I wonder if God is?


I can’t say that I agree. I’ve been reading up a lot on this issue of secularism for the past few weeks, and a lot of articles — yours included — use many of the same facts as reports on the other front, but are held in a different light.

I do agree that church isn’t necessarily an equal entity living along the borders of state; I agree that it’s an aspect OF state, and so can’t be separated in the way many people depict it could be. However, when taking a much more down-to-earth look on this issue, it’s apparent to me that many of the restrictions on religion are not as severe as you describe.

For one, prayer barred from school? I am sure many schools would be much more lax in such a law, but even for those who are not you must admit it won’t be hurting the students much at all. School is meant to be a place to learn a variety of skills for life, and if a subject doesn’t apply to your future then the study skills and other abilities that you build while attending the classes are likely to be of some aid. (Digressed a bit) There shouldn’t be time for prayer and worship, and even if there was why couldn’t it be reserved for home or church?

I do think restricting the number of people one can have over at home for bible study is very unfair. It’s something usually done in your own time and has no negative effect on others; why should state have a say in it? I think it sets a perspective that religion is no different than a type of business, as this license to host a wider number of worshipers vaguely reminds me of licenses to run businesses. Again, I see this as unfair.

I agree because everything that America was built on relates to the bible, from the Pledge of Allegiance to our national currency to the Oath of Office.

I have to say that I am a very devout Christian. I do believe that we should be allowed to worship, talk to God, pray, and read the Bible anytime we want to. The second amendment guarantees us the freedom of religion, so why wouldn’t we be able to act upon it at any time we wanted to. I don’t believe that I would let a teacher tell me that I am not allowed to read my bible to grown in my heavenly father or to say I couldn’t pray( to myself) in class. But that’s just my opinion.

Everything that America was built on does not relate to the Bible. The works “under God” were added to the Pledge in the 50s and so was “In God we Trust” on coins. Many of the founding fathers were deists, meaning they believed in a creator God, but believe he never interfered after that. This nation is a nation for all religions, and if you think forcing the religion of the majority on the minority is a good thing, then I believe you are mistaken.

Your comments are welcome

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